At age 26, Michelangelo Buonarroti spent three years creating the famous sculpture of biblical hero, David. The David stands 17-feet tall and weighs five tons, and is located to the left of the entrance of the Palazzo Vecchio in the Piazza della Signoria, Florence, Italy, next to a statue of Hercules and Cacus, meant to complement the David. History is big in Florence, but now it’s time to focus on the food and wine scene, beginning at Il Cibreo, where a group of writers meet up with the tall, handsome Italian, Giovanni Nencini, managing director at Cantine Leonardo da Vinci.
Da Vinci, a cooperative winery, has been in business since 1961. “We like sangiovese,” declares Nencini of the Italian-dominant grape. “It’s traditional. We work very hard for that.” Cantine Leonardo da Vinci prides itself on keeping up tradition, but with a modern style of winemaking.
Our group is ready to taste, and we are seated in a private dining area when an Italian elderly woman appears to take our orders. As we sip on da Vinci pinot grigio, she pulls up a chair, sits, and we are mesmerized by her regal Italian-matriarch persona; we are at her mercy to listen. She explains the process of taking our dinner selections from an intangible menu, and begins to recite: “Swiss chard, polenta, fish soup, tomato soup, porcini, …” as options for the first course. I choose polenta, playing it safe after a mistaken identity mishap of thinking tripe was actually squid. The polenta did not disappoint. The soft, lightly creamed texture was cooked perfectly and topped with an excess of Parmesan cheese shavings, which added a smoky flavor, and a small well of olive oil, complementing its richness. Between the 2010 Roso di Montalcino, with its solid structure and palatable finesse, Il Cibreo’s ambiance and the polenta dish, my senses swirl in pleasure.
The Italian woman enters once more, this time to spout selections for the next course: lamb’s brain (no way, not for me, but apparently for a few in my group), oxtail stew, roasted pigeon, veal stew, a beef dish, cold veal, raw red snapper, white mullet, eggplant parmesan, porcini mushrooms, rabbit, and my pick of chicken ricotta meatballs, which Giovanni’s thumbs up motion confirms I made a good choice. And I did. The Tuscan orange tomato sauce is cooked to perfection, and the meatballs’ taste sends me into a euphoric state, especially when paired with an exciting 2007 Brunello di Montalcino. In fact, these are the tastiest meatballs I’ve ever ordered, or is it the wine bringing out the flavors? Hard to figure out, but who needs to when it is all working so perfectly. But our simply superb meal wasn’t simply about food.
As we enjoy our entrees, Giovanni tantalizes us with tales of Brunello di Montalcino. We are informed that this wine stays in the cellar for five years, and that da Vinci utilizes grapes from four locations, but Montalcino is the top benchmark of the vineyards. The conversation shifts as the lamb’s brain is served with oranges. I am informed by my dining companion that oranges symbolized impending doom in the Godfather films. Had I known this? Maybe unconsciously. A bag of oranges is dropped as a deadly shootout occurs. The Godfather, played by Marlon Brando, is peeling an orange as he dies. And then there’s a briefcase scene where light goes through the back of a head, which symbolizes the soul being taken.
When I first garnered an interest in wine and ordered my first da Vinci as part of a mixed case of wines to try – and to fill up my newly purchased Crate & Barrel wine rack – I would never have imagined many years later I would be having dinner in Florence, Italy, with the GM of the winery. But I am, and loving the experience.
Read the next article on visiting a vineyard in Montalcino, located south of Siena; start from the beginning here.